ABOVE: How to talk to your kids about Rob Ford. Carey Marsden reports.
TORONTO — The scandalous news out of Toronto city hall has made its way around the world and into the homes of many families with kids.
In the past week, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has admitted to smoking crack cocaine and buying illegal drugs while conceding his contentious actions were made while in a “drunken stupor” or when he was “very, very inebriated.”
By Wednesday night, police documents allege that Ford’s aides saw him doing drugs, drunk in public, verbally abusing staffers and partying with women believed to be prostitutes. The allegations have not been proven in court.
That same day, Santa Claus parade officials urged the mayor to reconsider marching in the annual parade so that he isn’t a “distraction” for an event meant for children.
Canadian parenting experts — from professors, doctors and authors — say that there are clear messages parents can send to their children as the city continues to be rocked by the accusations and Ford’s response.
“Whenever kids see tragedy, sadness, unhealthiness — people struggling in such a public way — that certainly can be distressing,” Dr. Shimi Kang told Global News.
She’s a youth psychiatrist and author on dolphin parenting techniques.
Here’s what experts had to offer parents who may come across the Ford scandal while talking to their kids.
Teach them that there are many viewpoints
“The way we talk about contentious, polarizing issues is important,” parenting author Alyson Schafer told Global News.
She suggests that when talking to their kids, parents should act like a debate moderator, explaining the various sides of the argument.
That could mean telling kids that while some people are concerned that the mayor may not be suitable for office, others may believe he’s kept up with his public duties and his personal life should be behind closed doors. Some Torontonians might call for Ford to step down, while others say he deserves to stay in office until allegations are proven.
“I hope parents can use it as an opportunity to show flexible thinking and seeing both sides,” Schafer said.
Teach them that we all make mistakes…
In this instance, parents need to remind kids that we are all human and we make mistakes.
“Whether they’re a politician, actor, athlete or musician, they are at the end of the day human and humans make mistakes. But the most important thing is to take responsibility for your mistakes. That’s the message children should hear over and over,” Dr. Oren Amitay, a registered psychologist and Ryerson University instructor, told Global News.
… but that we need to be accountable and face repercussions
But parents need to help their kids acknowledge that mistakes come with a price — the repercussions. Too often — in school or at home — youth may apologize and get off the hook as long as they promise to do better. That’s not always the case in the real world, Amitay said.
“Quasi-apologies aren’t the way to go, it’s about truly owning your mistakes,” Amitay said. It’s reminding kids that while Ford may have apologized, it doesn’t erase the damage he may have caused. His job and reputation are both in precarious situations now.
“Children can learn about accountability at literally any age. They understand there are consequences,” Amitay said.
This conversation is building rapport with your kids, so don’t scare them away from coming to you for help when they may need it later on, Kang said.
“The risk is kids won’t tell you when they make mistakes. Tell them ‘we’re here for you and we’ll forgive you as long as you do the right thing,’” Kang said.
Teach them not to blame their actions on substance abuse
What stood out to Schafer was what followed Ford’s admission to smoking crack cocaine last year.
“It’s not an alibi. That’s very concerning using a drunken state for bad behaviour,” Schafer said, calling that comment “distasteful.”
She said it could be interpreted as handing a free pass to those who are intoxicated and physically abuse others or commit other crimes. In a kid’s world, it could be like saying he decided to do a dangerous trick on the skateboard because his friend told him to.
“You’re always accountable for your behaviour, drunk or not,” she said.
Cater to your child’s age, maturity; listen and ask questions
Your conversation about Toronto’s embattled mayor could be brief or in depth, depending on the age and maturity of your child.
“You shape the conversation and you never say more than they need to know,” Amitay said.
“You want to make sure that what you share is simple and concise and honest and that can be through providing information or clarifying,” Schafer said.
For a six-year-old, it’s as simple as saying, “this man was using some bad drugs” but for a 14-year-old, it could be a conversation about trusting public leaders or not casting judgment with incomplete details.
Instead of doling out information, sometimes asking questions is better. What do you know about cocaine? What are your friends saying about this in school? What have you seen on TV about this?
It could be an opportunity for kids — if they’re old enough — to make their own political decisions on where they stand, Amitay said.
If you’re talking to your kids about the dangers of drugs, though, Amitay suggests doing some research beforehand. To gain trust, your children want to know that you know what you’re talking about.
Leave it on a positive note
Generally speaking, most kids shouldn’t be pulled into the fray when you’re watching the news or shouting headlines to your partner in another room.
“It’s just kids watching people get yelled at and it scares them. Anytime they see someone in pain, suffering, screaming, those visual images have more of an impact than the average parent is aware,” Schafer said.
If your child asks you why the mayor was doing drugs or why he didn’t admit to it immediately, it’s okay to not have the answers, Kang said.
You can tell them that people do things for all kinds of reasons, and that no one but him knows the answer.
“You want to end your conversation on reassurance and optimism. Remind children that everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves forgiveness if they seek it genuinely, there is treatment and people recover. When we see people spiraling out of control in front of us, the final message must still be of hope and optimism,” Kang said.